Reborn Illini Overpower Iowa Hawkeyes

The Fighting Illini used a stifling defense and improved shot selection to run past the Iowa Hawkeyes 59-42 at the Assembly Hall Tuesday night. Bruce Weber started Bill Cole and Jeff Jordan, and the Illini were focused from the start. A 15-0 run gave the Illini an early lead, and they coasted thereafter.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber and his players did a lot of soul-searching after the Gonzaga loss. And Weber tried something different, letting the players critique each other's effort while watching film of that game. He hoped they would develop leadership skills and learn through teaching. It was a difficult Sunday for all of them, so afterward he treated them to a night of bowling.

Maybe the Illini found the magical formula for success since they jumped all over Iowa early and were never threatened.

"I was very pleased by the effort and how hard we played," Weber acknowledged afterward. "We needed to get off to a better start, so we changed the lineup. It's the first time in 8 games we won the first five minute war. It set the tone.

"Our shooting wasn't great, but we guarded. We kept guarding, we played hard. And that was what I was asking for. Sometimes you've got to win like that. It doesn't have to be the smooth, perfect game all the time. So we made some progress.

"I thought the team responded well to the change in the lineup. And I thought the two guys who were taken out of the lineup responded well and really gave us a nice boost coming off the bench."

The long-missing Illini defense came to life, giving the Hawkeyes only 15 points in the first half and 42 for the entire game. They shot only 30.6% and had trouble getting open looks. No one on the Hawkeye team reached double figures.

Iowa coach Todd Lickliter praised the Illini defense.

"They jumped on us too quick, and we couldn't recover. The tone was set. To their credit, they went after us pretty hard. Bruce has been pushing them to defend with more urgency, and to his credit we saw that tonight. He emphasized it and got it done. It's a very nice team.

"Their length bothered us. We were at the rim a half dozen times early and couldn't finish. That took a lot out of us. They were in great position, they did close out. But I also think we were not assertive. They pushed us out on the court and wouldn't let us reverse it at times."

Weber concurred.

"I thought it was our best defensive effort. We got a lot of guys in, pretty balanced minutes. Maybe we didn't shoot as well because we played so hard. Maybe we have to adjust to that. And I have to do a good job subbing."

D.J. Richardson was benched for the first time, but it seemed to inspire him as he hit his first 5 three point shots, four in the first half. Demetri McCamey played one of his best first halves once he entered, scoring 7 points and dishing out 6 assists. Richardson was the only Illini in double figures for the game with 17 points.

Jeff Jordan played 23 minutes, the most this year, and he provided energy and ran the offense. He didn't score, but he assisted on 5 baskets and had no turnovers. Weber praised him and McCamey.

"The way Demetri and Jeff played, 12 assists and no turnovers, we won and they did what the point guard is supposed to do. Pretty good patience, which we didn't have the other day. Hopefully we're maturing as a team."

Jordan said he was excited to start, but his main focus was to provide energy and help the team win. His decision to return to the team this fall has been a big boost to the team, and Weber is grateful.

"Last spring, this is what I anticipated for Jeff. Maturity, leadership, pushing the ball, giving energy. I think he can take one more step. If he can get on the floor for loose balls, it can really help our team."

Weber hinted why he benched McCamey.

"He needs to play hard. He should be our best player, but he doesn't always do it. And he has to do it on both ends. If we can't have the energy early, maybe he needs to come off the bench and let Jeff give the early energy."

At his Monday press conference, Weber said the Illini needed to improve their defense and shot selection. He said early shots were backfiring on the team and sited the Gonzaga game as proof. Weber was actually pleased with a shot clock violation.

"First shot clock violation. It was great. It means we had some patience. We've got to learn how to play basketball. If we had three of those against Gonzaga instead of three no-pass shots, we would have won."

Richardson was the only Illini in double figures, but nine players scored. McCamey had 9 points, Mike Tisdale added 7, and Mike Davis and Dominique Keller each contributed 6. The Illini shot 41.1% for the game, tailing off from their hot 51.7% first half. They outrebounded the smaller Hawks by 9.

This was a good first step towards restoring Illinois basketball to the quality expected of it. But the Illini can't rest on their laurels with a trip to Indiana coming up Saturday night.

"It was a good effort overall," Weber said. "We've got a big game on Saturday night. Unless we do it Saturday, it doesn't matter."

Maybe the Illini should go bowling beforehand.

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